The Tyranny Of Real Time
We live in a real time world.
Well, we always lived in a real time world. But the scale of that world used to be quite small. Basically just the people in our immediate vicinity. And when we got mass media our world expanded but it wasn't a real time world.
Radio and TV were for the longest time a reactionary media. They told us about things after the fact. Hours rather than days, but still afterwards. Because it was afterwards they were able to supply context and attempt to put all the information into some semblance of order.
Things really changed with the arrival of the 24 hour news networks. They were desperate to fill up air time. Suddenly we had live on the scene reporting for everything.
And audiences lapped it up. Because instinctively we feel that things that are happening now
must be more important than things that were happening 6 hours ago. Even if that frequently isn't true.
In fact very few of the things that are covered by 24 hour news channels are of any actual importance to 95% of the people watching. They are visual gossip, but they don't actually impact our lives. Along Comes The Internet
The internet is as real time as 24 hour news, but without even those minimal filters in place. So when it arrived the number of potential news sources ballooned. Suddenly we were free of middlemen coloring our news. Or at least that is how many people see it.
Blogs allowed people to report on the things they thought were important. The iPhone and other cellphones made cameras and video ubiquitous. And social networks made news a non-stop stream.Drowning In the Stream
The amount of news
we are now exposed to is overwhelming. It's impossible to consume it all. Instead we dip in and out of that stream as it is convenient.
When something bad happens like the bombings in Boston, we immerse ourselves trying to soak it all up. Trying to understand it. For most of us who are not in the immediate vicinity doing this, forwarding posts... it makes us feel as though we are doing something.
But as I pointed out earlier, real time news isn't actually good, or useful news. And again the tragic events in Boston illustrated this.
The social media streams were flooded with reports and reposts. But for the first 3 hours there was really no useful news to report beyond the fact that explosions had occurred.
There was, however, a flood of bad news. People speculated as to the culprit (probably incorrectly since we still don't know). Threats were issued. Additional bombs were reported. Incorrect death tolls were reported. A suspect was being questioned (not). There were photos. Oh so many photos. First person accounts. Reaction shots. Endless reportage. Just very few actual facts.
And none of it helped.Real Time Done Right
Now there were some good uses made of social media. Google's People Finder for example or the spreadsheet of people who would put up others who needed a place to stay. These are excellent uses of the real time internet.
Providing relevant information to people who are in a specific location when they need it is how the real time internet should
work. Unfortunately the good stuff. The relevant stuff is often drowned by all the rest.The Tyranny Of Real Time
We currently live in a world where real time
is presented as the be all end all of news. It's not.
Certain information is beneficial to us in real time. It's useful for me to know if there was a car crash on the route I take to and from work. It's useful to me. I can do something with it.
Pictures of dead and bloody people. That is not beneficial. I can't help these people. I can't do anything except feel bad. It's hard to turn away from that flood of information when something important is happening. But the information isn't helping.
The problem with removing the middleman from news is that filters are actually important. Humans are very bad at being unemotional and analyzing large quantities of data. We tend to find patterns that don't exist and were' all guilty of confirmation bias.
The delays we used to experience before receiving news allowed facts to be confirmed, information to be reviewed and multiple people to analyse it. That has all been lost.
The real time coverage of the Boston Bombing didn't enhance our understanding at all. If anything it probably had a negative effect by exposing people to horrific images and making them experience horrible events while removing any sense of control from them.
Real time information has a lot of good uses, but news isn't one of them. And we need to move away from the idea that knowing sooner is always better.Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hexholden/4525427161/sizes/z/in/photostream/